From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

September 22, 1996: On Personal and Impersonal E-mail messages

I admit it, I love e-mail. So much gets written about the World Wide Web that it becomes easy to forget that e-mail is one of the most useful and enjoyable aspects of the internet. And even without attaching documents, just by using the almost passe elements of a simple text editor, it's possible to communicate an awful lot of important and useful information. But of course not all information is useful. And all too often it can be pretty exasperating.

The new year offers us an opportunity to take a look at some of these.

I subscribe to a number of newsgroups. One of these, to my dismay brings me about forty messages per day which I feel an obligation to read, or at least skim through (more on that phenomenon another time). This past week a number of subscribers took the opportunity to send new year's greetings to all the other subscribers. That, of course, wasn't difficult to do, since an e-message addressed to the group is automatically sent to every subscriber. Thus it happened that I received "personal" shana tova's from people whom I've never met. To the credit of this newsgroup and its members, these greetings from, for me, faceless people, still had a feel of being actually directed toward me. Real people had sent them to real people.

I received what was for me a much less personal greeting through another list I subscribe to. When I opened my mail I learned that "you have been sent a greeting card" that I could view at a particular web address. In this case, "you" wasn't really me, but rather the entire mailing list, and it was from someone new to the list whom I not only had never met, but hadn't even heard of until then. In this on-line example, the names have been changed to protect the innocent, and the guilty as well.

But that's still incredibly personal, and at least somewhat aesthetically pleasing, in comparison to the greeting I received from Red Point. I've never been in a Red Point store, and though I have no objection to stores of this sort, they hold minimal attraction for me. But there it was when I checked my mail, a shona tova from Red Point, with a link, of course, to their web site, inviting me to visit them with a click of the mouse.

So my inbox continues to get filled up with unsolicited greetings, which for some unclear reason I feel an obligation to read before pressing on the delete key.

But if we're going to get impersonal, we might as well do it in style, and on a massive scale. Someone (actually, numerous people) out there, actually care about me and want to help me "make money" without hardly any effort. Everyone is familiar with these chain letter schemes, though I admit that I think that the last time I knowingly opened and read one was when I was 16 years old. But the wonders of communications technologies make the whole process almost irresistably easy.

In the distant past, in order to get on the list you had to mail five letters to five people. That's five photocopies (or, way back when, five hand written copies) with five envelopes and five stamps, and most important of all, five addresses of people whom you wanted to help get rich. Today it's so much easier. You still need envelopes for the dollar bills you send, but you can mail your letter to an entire newsgroup (or to numerous newsgroups), and even if there are fewer suckers on the internet than in "real life" (something for which there is absolutely no statistical evidence) pure volume should be enough to enable you to find enough people who really believe that there's some value in passing on your letter.

The example given here is one of five I've received over the past two months. Needless to say, none of them were sent personally to me. The one redeeming quality of these schemes is the number of scathing replies that they generate in the newsgroups that receive them. But on flaming and similar on-line activities in a future column.

I love e-mail, but did I say that it's the really useful aspect of the internet?

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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